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How to Plan a Dinner Party

On Your Mark, Get Set ...

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Dinner Party

Dinner Party

Linda Larsen
Planning an entertaining menu and an evening with guests can be quite intimidating. But with these tips and some planning, you will have a wonderful time at your own party! You'll find basic party tips on this page, and on the next, I'll give you a menu and countdown timetable chart you can use to plan your party.

How to Plan a Dinner Party: On Your Mark!

  • First decide on the date of your party, guest list, and theme. If you choose to entertain around a holiday, many of your decisions will be easier, if you incorporate traditional decorations and food. Invite guests to your party early, preferably two or more weeks ahead of time. This will give them time to RSVP and will give you more time to plan. The comfort of your guests is your primary goal, so think about compatibility, tastes, ages, and the ambiance you want to create.
  • Make a realistic assessment of your cooking and baking skill levels, and the time you'll be able to commit to the party. There are ways to make things easier - takeout and deli foods are absolutely acceptable, and you can have a cookout, picnic, or a potluck party if you are really busy. A sit down dinner party is more formal than a cookout or a buffet, so think carefully about what type of party makes you the most comfortable.
  • Get ready to make lists! Lists are absolutely essential for any party, as you can jot things down as you think of them. Once you have the basics well planned and written down, your mind will be free to be creative with the food, fun, and decor.
  • Make your guest list and invite them. Calling is the easiest way to invite, and you will most likely get an immediate response. Another advantage of calling is you can ask (as I always do) if your guests have any food allergies or preferences. For larger parties, like a surprise birthday party, you can send out invitations.
  • Plan your menu. Have fun with this, but don't overreach! If you are a beginning cook, choose a main dish that you have made before and enjoy, then build upon it by buying dessert, a premade salad, and some fabulous crusty bakery bread. It's a good idea to never make a recipe for the first time for a party. There's nothing worse than struggling with an unfamiliar recipe when you can hear your guests having fun in the next room! Try to plan a mix of make ahead recipes and those that require last minute baking or preparation. I really prefer having everything done, and ready to just pull out of the fridge and serve, or pop in the oven or on the grill.
  • Take inventory of your supplies: table and chairs, serving pieces, cutlery, crystal, plates, candlesticks, serving areas, and of course your kitchen. Think about renting or borrowing items you don't have. Make sure the things you own are sparkling clean and in good repair.
  • Think about how you want to decorate. Decorations for a party can be as simple as candlesticks on the table, or more elaborate streamers, balloons, flower arrangements, tablecloths, and even chair slipcovers. Decorate with the seasons too. Fresh flowers in the summer, a bowl full of polished apples and spruce twigs in the winter, or a vase with colorful leaves and cattails in the fall are simple, inexpensive, and beautiful.

Get Set for the Party

  • Think carefully through the entire party menu. If you have only one oven, don't plan two baked dishes that require different cooking temperatures that need to be baked just before serving. Match your food to the type of service too. Foods for a sit down dinner party may be difficult to handle at a buffet. If you cook the foods you love, your guests will love it too.
  • Now plan your countdown. Block out time on your calendar for house cleaning, shopping, decorating, and setting the table. Make sure to save some time before the party so you can get ready and relax before your guests arrive. Check which recipes can be made ahead, and make sure you have freezer or refrigerator space to store them. You may be able to borrow space in a friend's refrigerator or freezer before your party - especially if you invite them!
  • Go over your menu, gather your recipes, and plan shopping lists directly from the recipes. Don't rely on your memory for this! Check your pantry too. If you are low on staples like baking powder, sugar, or flour, add those to your list.
  • Notice that I said lists? Shop for foods and supplies that can be purchased in advance (like staples), those that need to be bought the week of the party or special ordered, and the last minute purchases like fresh berries.
  • Plan for heavy cleaning, if needed, well ahead of party time. If you need carpets shampooed or windows washed, take care of those chores at least a week ahead of time.
  • Write down a timetable for the day of the party, counting back from party time. Leave plenty of time for food preparation, baking, cooling and decorating, setting the table, arranging flowers, planning music or games, and getting yourself and family ready!
  • You can do shopping for staples, like napkins, paper towels, and cleaning equipment, well ahead of time.
  • Clean, clean, clean! A clean house is not only welcoming, but you will feel more comfortable knowing that a guest isn't going to come upon an unexpected mess. The kitchen and bathroom are the rooms I pay special attention to.
  • Setting and decorating the table and the dining room for your party is really fun. If your dining room can be closed off, set it a few days ahead of time. Keeping kids and pets away from a set table is important, so close the doors!

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